August 09, 2019 at 06:00AM by CWC
With restaurants in every single state—and most airports—Panda Express is the easy go-to when a craving for Americanized Chinese food hits. Regardless of which location you go to, the fast food chain is reliable for offering all the popular classics, like fried rice, orange chicken, and teriyaki chicken.
Compared to going to a more burger-centric place, Panda Express may seem like a healthier option. But is it actually? Like anywhere you go, it all depends on what you order. (Spoiler: Not the chow mein.) Registered dietitian Kim Morton, RD, shares her top recs on exactly what to order if you follow the ketogenic diet (not easy at a place where the majority of the dishes are rice- or noodle-based), are plant-based, or follow the Mediterranean diet.
Keep reading to check out the best healthy options at Panda Express.
What an RD says: Morton names the broccoli and beef and the grilled teriyaki chicken as her top healthy options for this diet because not only do they have good protein (nine grams in the beef and broccoli and 36 in the teriyaki chicken), but they are both well in-line with the carb count. The keto diet caps carbs at 30 grams a day, and these dishes have 13 grams and eight grams, respectively. “In general, you want to avoid anything breaded or fried and also the dishes that have a honey glaze or sweet and sour sauce, because they’re going to be higher in sugar,” Morton says. Even though the teriyaki chicken has a glaze, she points out that it’s soy sauce-based, so the sugar content is a relatively lower 8 grams.
Order tweaks: While Morton says no changes have to be made when you order, she does call out that the sodium in both dishes is quite high, with 530 milligrams in the teriyaki chicken and 520 milligrams in the broccoli and beef. (You want to keep it below 2,300 milligrams for the entire day.) “It’s just something to be aware of when you think about what you’re eating the rest of the day,” she says.
Side-dish recommendations: As sides, Panda Express offers chow mein, fried rice, brown rice, or a “super greens” mix of broccoli and cabbage—so there’s really only one option that’s keto-approved. “The super greens is a great option regardless of diet type because it has fiber [five grams], which is good for digestion,” Morton says.
Looking for more fast-casual restaurant tips? Here’s what to order at Chipotle:
What an RD says: The majority of Panda Express’s entrees are meat-based, but Morton spied one that isn’t: the eggplant tofu. While it is tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce—which she generally says isn’t ideal—she points out that it’s entirely plant-based and has protein (seven grams) and fiber (three grams). Morton says the healthiest option for plant-based eater actually comes by combining the brown rice and super greens. “Brown rice is higher in fiber than white rice, which is why I recommend going for that one,” she says.
Order tweak: Because the sauce in the eggplant tofu is high in sugar (17 grams), Morton says to ask and see if you can get it without the sauce if possible and if it isn’t already all mixed together.
Also something to keep in mind: While Panda Express recently revamped a select few of its entrees (like the eggplant tofu) to ensure that they used all-vegan ingredients, they still have a disclaimer on their website that none of their menu items are vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free because of cooking preparation methods. So if you’re a strict vegan, you may run the risk of your dish being cross-contaminated with meat or other animal products.
Side-dish recommendations: If the sides aren’t already part of your main meal, Morton says either the brown steamed rice or super greens are good picks, primarily for their fiber content (four grams and five grams, respectively). To compare, the white steamed rice has no fiber.
What an RD says: If you’re following the Mediterranean diet, usually it’s pretty solid advice to choose a seafood-centric dish, but Morton points out that in this case, Panda Express only offers honey walnut shrimp, which is both fried and has a glaze. Instead, she says to look for veggie-forward healthy options, like the eggplant tofu or the string bean chicken breast, which has a mild ginger-soy sauce instead of a super sugary one.
Order tweaks: None needed.
Side dish recommendations: “Similar with plant-based, both the brown steamed rice and the super greens are good options for the Mediterranean diet because the rice is a whole grain, which fits in with the eating plan,” Morton says. “But for anyone, the super greens is going to be the superior choice.”
Regardless of what eating plan you follow—or if you are just trying to eat healthy in general—Morton’s advice when eating at Panda Express is pretty straight forward: avoid sugary sauces, steer clear of fried or breaded protein, and load up on the super greens!